Reporting David Elfin
We’ve all enjoyed coach Jim Mora’s legendary “Playoffs” reaction to a reporter’s question about whether he thought that his 2001 Indianapolis Colts, having just committed five turnovers in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers, had a shot to reach postseason.
Fast forward 10 years to the wake of the Washington Redskins’ fourth straight loss, coincidentally to the 49ers. It’s not the “P” as in playoffs word that riles up Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.
Instead, it’s the “R” word that gets under Shanahan’s skin. Not retirement, the bugaboo for so many aging athletes and coaches. This “R” word is rebuilding.
His team is just 9-15 since he succeeded the fired Jim Zorn in January 2010. Those four straight defeats after an unexpected 3-1 start certainly makes Washington seem destined for a third straight losing season for just the third time in 47 years.
But Shanahan didn’t want to admit that the Redskins are in rebuilding mode even though running back Roy Helu, receiver Leonard Hankerson and guard Maurice Hurt, all rookies, made their first starts against the 49ers while quarterback John Beck and fullback Darrel Young have yet to open a season’s worth of games, either.
“What do you consider rebuilding,” Shanahan said in his answer to the question from 106.7TheFan’s Grant Paulsen. “The reason young guys are getting opportunities is because older guys (Tim Hightower, Santana Moss, Kory Lichtensteiger, Chris Cooley) have gotten hurt. We’ve got young guys backing up so you really don’t have an option to put veteran guys in there.”
Of course, Shanahan conveniently ignored the fact that he had started the comparatively more experienced duo of Ryan Torain and Anthony Armstrong ahead of Helu and Hankerson for the previous week’s shutout loss to Buffalo. Or that true veteran receiver Donte Stallworth wasn’t even activated for the San Francisco game.
Shanahan then tried to explain himself, saying, “I’m not even sure what you mean by rebuilding. You said (we’re) playing young players. … When you lose a starter and you play a young guy, you’re playing the next-best player. Is that considered rebuilding because you’re playing the next-best player? I don’t believe so. You’re trying to win the football game.”
That was all Shanny-speak, but where it got really interesting was when the coach responded to a question about having his son Kyle as his offensive coordinator when the Redskins managed just 10 points the past two games, their lowest output since September 2001 and the lowest of the coach’s 17-year career.
“It’s obviously tough when you’re not productive,” Shanahan said. “I’m the one that told Kyle not come (from Houston where he held the same position). … I said we’re going to have to rebuild this football team, starting on offense. He understood that and he enjoyed the challenge and that’s what we’re doing.”
So let’s get this straight. The Redskins had to be rebuilt when Shanahan took command after the 12-20 Zorn era and “that’s what we’re doing” (note the present tense) refers to the ongoing rebuilding, but they’re really not rebuilding by starting three rookies on offense?
So replacing guard Randy Thomas, receiver Devin Thomas and quarterback Jason Campbell with Artis Hicks, Joey Galloway and Donovan McNabb in 2010 was rebuilding because the lineup got older, but this year’s changes aren’t rebuilding because it got younger?
That’s backwards. Good teams can be re-tooled. Bad ones are rebuilt. Whether the Redskins were replacing former front office boss Vinny Cerrato’s veterans with Shanahan’s or whether they’re playing kids because veterans got hurt or didn’t play well, it’s still rebuilding.
It can be argued that it’s more like building than rebuilding since there’s not much of a foundation when the Redskins have won all of two playoff games and reached postseason just three times since Joe Gibbs’ first retirement in March 1993.
But it’s certainly true that a season and a half into Shanahan’s regime his offense has very few pieces that the coach can firmly say will still belong when the Redskins are finally rebuilt.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.